Martin's birthday cake
A special birthday cake for a special person

Today is my Special Someone’s birthday and as I make preparations to celebrate it, I took a quick look at birthday cakes from a historical standpoint. From the earliest days of birthday tradition, having friends and family join in the festivities and share the meal was as important as it is to us in the present.

Birthday customs originated with the Germans who brought the custom with them when they settled in Pennsylvania. This piece is especially pertinent in that Martin’s heritage through his mom is Pennsylvania Dutch.

The following was written about a child celebrating a birthday in Germany as seen through the eyes of an American.

“One morning we entered the Speise-saal (dining room), and there stood a table covered with a glistening white cloth, looped with vines, ferns laid about the edge, brightened here and there with roses. In the centre was the great feature—a Birthday Cake. And such a Birthday Cake!—an American child never even dreamed of such a Birthday Cake! It is an immense round, snowy cake, and about it, burning, thirteen little colored candles,–in the middle of it a larger taper, called the Lebens Licht—the light of life, the life-candle. Such a cake is generally present on birthdays, and each year another candle is added. The cake, as all the fine cake, is somewhat like our jelly cake, with a soft icing, decorated in various ways on top, usually with conserved fruit. The icing of this Torte, is of marzipan,–rubbed almonds and powdered sugar…Then the presents, and the beginning of a happy day for the child, and the whole house is steeped in smiles and happiness. It is so throughout Germany on the Birthday.”

The full account is well worth reading and guaranteed to bring a smile to your lips as, “relatives and friends send good-wishes. It is astonishing how everybody remembers everybody’s birthday, and how no one is forgotten or forgets. In fact, each individual has a birthday-book in which to keep account of these days, and the little book warns as a friend’s birthday draws near. Expensive presents are seldom given,–a card, a letter, a bunch of flowers, a plant, merely as a token of remembrance…” – Parry, Emma Louise. Life Among the Germans. 1887. Boston.

The first mention I found of birthday cake in cookery books was published in 1870 in Jennie June’s American Cookery Book. The recipe produces cakes or cookies and not a decorated birthday cake at all.

“Into a pound of dried flour, put four ounces of butter, four ounces of sugar, one egg, a tea-spoonful of baking powder, and sufficient milk to wet to a paste. Put in currants, and cut in cakes. Sprinkle colored caraway seeds on top, and bake them a light brown”.

In 1902 Lida Seely gave a recipe for Birthday cake with glaze which is worth sharing as I close this post.

“One cup of butter, two cups of sugar, five eggs, three cups of flour, one heaping teaspoonful of baking powder, one cup of milk, one teaspoonful of rose water. Sift the sugar, then measure it. Wash the butter once in ice water until it is white and creamy, dry it in a towel and add it to the sugar. Rub both to a creamy substance and stir in the yolks of the eggs, one by one. Beat all until light and foamy. Stir in one cup of sifted flour, then add the milk, then another cup of sifted flour. Mix well and stir in the last cup of flour which has the baking powder sifted with it. When well mixed, add the well-beaten whites and the rose water. Butter a large round cake tin and line the bottom with paper. Pour in your mixture and bake in moderate oven for one hour. When you remove it from the oven, be sure it is thoroughly cooked. Test it by putting a fine broom whisk through the centre of the cake. If the whisk comes out dry, the cake is done. Stand the pan on a wire sieve until the cake is partially cool. Make a glaze for the top of the cake as follows:

How to Make a Glaze for Birthday Cake. In a saucepan put one cup of granulated sugar with four tablespoonfuls of water. Boil ten minutes slowly, or until it reaches a large ball. Have the white of one egg whipped very stiff, and slowly pour the hot sugar into it, stirring constantly. While hot, pour it slowly and thinly over the cake. Do not use a knife, as it will make the surface rough. Let it dry, which will be almost immediately. Make the following icing for decorating:

To make Icing for Birthday Cake. Half a pound of powdered sugar, whites of two eggs, juice of one lemon. Beat the eggs for two minutes until stiff and by degrees add the sifted sugar, stirring all the time with a wire egg-beater. When all the sugar is used, beat well for five minutes with a Dover egg beater, so the icing will be thoroughly smooth. Put a fancy tube in a pastry bag and fill the bag with the icing. Make a paper funnel with a very small opening and fill also with icing. With the paper funnel trace any design you desire on the cake, commencing at the extreme edge. Leave space in the centre for the initials or date. Follow up the paper funnel with the pastry bag and with this fill out the design. You must work rapidly, so the tracing of icing will not harden before the decoration is filled in. Color the remainder of the icing pink and put on the initials or date. Have some pink and white candied rose leaves [probably refers to petals], dip them in sugar syrup to make them stick, and put them round the lower edge of your cake. Before you begin to decorate the cake, place it on a round board, a little larger than the cake and covered with a fancy edged paper.

How to Write the Initials on Birthday Cake. Reserve about one-quarter of your icing, stir in a drop of cochineal to color it pink. Make a three-cornered paper funnel, put in the icing, fasten tightly. Take it in your hand as you would a pen, and press with your thumb as you make the letters. The size of the mark depends upon the size of the opening in the paper funnel.”©